"The 2 °C target is often mentioned as a target or threshold in climate-change debates," Nadine Salzmann of the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, told environmentalresearchweb. "However, studies on the effective impacts that a global 2 °C air-temperature rise might have on a regional-scale system are mostly lacking. So we decided to approach these questions for Swiss glaciers by using the latest climate-model data and glacier models."

Salzmann and colleagues from the University of Zurich and Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland found that, depending on the regional climate-model ensemble they used, Swiss glaciers would reach 2°C of temperature rise by 2030, 2045 or 2055. They assumed that the temperature rise then stabilized, and fed regional climate data from the ensembles into a glacier mass-balance model. They ran the models until 2150 to give the glaciers time to adjust, and created easily interpretable visualizations of their results.

"Even if temperature rise stabilizes at 2 °C, there is already a massive loss of ice – in terms of area and volume – to be expected," said Salzmann, "with great impacts and implications for society, particularly concerning water resources but also regarding the loss of features attractive to tourists, and strongly reduced long-term observation records from glaciers, such as mass-balance measurements or cold-ice archives, which are among the best climate indicators."

The team discovered that 101 glaciers, making up about half the glacierized area and 75% of the ice volume in Switzerland, were suitable for the analysis. Small and mid-sized glaciers took around 40 years to adjust to the 2° temperature rise, while the largest glaciers needed around 100 years, the team found.

"Even if society can limit global warming to 2 °C, the impacts for glaciers in Switzerland would be significant," said Salzmann. "We have to start robust adaptation measures immediately. It will also be important to assess the positive and negative impacts – or chances and risks – such adaptation measures might bring."

Now the plan is to carry out similar studies for permafrost in Switzerland. "The technique of linking regional climate-model data with mass-balance models is currently also applied in other regions of the world, for example Greenland and Patagonia," said Salzmann. "In general, we aim to advance the collaboration of different disciplines, particularly the climate and impact communities, to gain new knowledge about climate-change impacts on the regional scale, where society feels it most." The researchers say they will pay particular attention to the uncertainties related to high mountain topography that they identified in their study.

The team reported their work in Environmental Research Letters (ERL).

• The title and first paragraph of this news article were amended on 30/10/12 to correct a factual inaccuracy in reporting.